Migrants at the border of Poland and Belarus face dire conditions in makeshift camps | Photo: Leonid Shchelglov/BelTa/AP/picture-alliance
Migrants at the border of Poland and Belarus face dire conditions in makeshift camps | Photo: Leonid Shchelglov/BelTa/AP/picture-alliance

Belarus has been accused of orchestrating the arrival of thousands of migrants at the European Union border since this summer in retaliation for sanctions imposed by Europe. Morocco and Turkey have already deployed a similar strategy to serve their own interests.

Images that have emerged recently from a makeshift camp set up on the border between Poland and Belarus show the stark conditions in which some 3,000 people are living. There are hastily lit fires around tents that litter the ground, children wrapped in heavy coats, hungry and thirsty families. And there are armed soldiers firing shots to prevent the migrants from turning back.

Since this summer, thousands of migrants, mainly from the Middle East, have flocked to the border between the two countries. A more compact crowd headed to the area on Monday, November 8, hoping to cross into Poland, a member of the European Union (EU).

Tensions between EU nations and Belarus have been growing as migrants and refugees gather along the Poland-Belarus frontier | Photo: Oksana Manchuk
Tensions between EU nations and Belarus have been growing as migrants and refugees gather along the Poland-Belarus frontier | Photo: Oksana Manchuk


Europeans say the migrant movements are being driven by the regime of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko in retaliation for sanctions imposed last year by member states after a brutal crackdown on opposition figures in the country. Flights from Damascus, Syria, and Baghdad, Iraq, are said to be bringing the exiles to the capital Minsk and then on to the border with Poland.

At the United Nations on November 11, European Union members issued a joint statement condemning "the orchestrated instrumentalization of human beings" with the objective of "destabilizing neighboring countries and the European Union’s external border and diverting attention away from its own increasing human rights violations."

Immigration, the EU's achilles heel

This is not the first time the EU has had to deal with a migration crisis at its borders. Last May, Morocco allowed thousands of migrants to pass through the Spanish enclave of Ceuta to protest the hospitalization of the leader of the Polisario Front in Madrid. A year earlier, it was Turkey that opened the doors of Europe, via Greece, to migrants, hoping to push the EU and NATO to come to its aid in Syria.

But Belarus's actions go much further. "Until now, migrants were used as a bargaining chip with people already present on the territory of the states involved. Here, we have reached another dimension never seen before with flights chartered by Minsk to bring migrants from their country of origin straight to the EU borders," explains François Gemenne, a researcher in political science and a specialist in migration at the University of Liège, speaking with InfoMigrants.

Read more: 'Lies, lies, lies!': For migrants trapped on the Belarus-Polish border, no easy way back to Minsk

Migrants are being used here as a lever by states hostile to Europe to serve their own interests in the same way as economic sanctions. "The issue of immigration is the EU's Achilles' heel, and other countries have understood this and are using it to weaken the continent. We are making ourselves vulnerable," says Gemenne.

'We give the States the stick to be beaten'

For years, the EU has not been able to agree on a common migration policy, with persistent differences that serve to weaken the continent as a whole.

The issue even divides member states. The countries of the Visegrad group -- Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- systematically oppose the decisions taken by Brussels. Worse, they defy the EU by not respecting European laws. Budapest has been condemned several times by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) for its treatment of asylum seekers and its refusal to accept a system of distribution of migrants.

The countries in the front line -- Greece, Spain and Italy -- are relentless in their demand for the establishment of a solidarity mechanism to automatically share the reception of exiles arriving on their shores, but often find themselves alone in managing these flows of people.

Read more: Belarus: Western nations, Russia debate migration conflict at UN

Aware of its fragility, the EU has externalized its borders by making financial agreements with Turkey and Morocco to contain migrants on their soil. But "by doing so, we have given them the power", analyses Gemenne. "By subcontracting the problem, the EU has found itself indebted to regimes that do not hesitate to use it to blackmail us."

These bullying practices are likely to be repeated in the future. "The more the issue will cause widespread panic within the Union, the more hostile regimes will be tempted to use these methods to dominate us," says Gemenne.

This is an opinion shared by Matthieu Tardis, of the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri). "By not letting migrants in, Europeans fall into the trap that has been set," he says. "They are making the situation more dramatic than it needs to be even though they already have the means to welcome these people."

 

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